Does Nobel winner Higgs support an Israel boycott?

British physicist, who shared the award with a Tel Aviv U professor, allegedly pushes BDS; but the evidence is nearly as elusive as the particle that bears his name

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Belgian physicist Francois Englert, left, and British physicist Peter Higgs, right, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin near Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday, July 4, 2012. (photo credit: AP Photo/Keystone/Martial Trezzini)
Belgian physicist Francois Englert, left, and British physicist Peter Higgs, right, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin near Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday, July 4, 2012. (photo credit: AP Photo/Keystone/Martial Trezzini)

Peter Higgs, one of the two 2013 Nobel laureates in Physics, has been accused of actively supporting the movement to boycott Israel’s academic institutions, notwithstanding the deep connections of his co-winner, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, to Tel Aviv University. However, firm evidence to back up the allegation is hard to find.

Higgs, from Britain, shared the prestigious award with François Englert of Belgium. Englert holds a special appointment at Tel Aviv University, where he is a Sackler professor.

“It is very ironic that Israeli scientists are dominating the Nobel prizes yet again, and the British winner of the Nobel prize is, in effect, boycotting them,” Middle East commentator Tom Gross said, after writing on his site last Wednesday that Higgs “is calling for an academic boycott of Israel.”

But how much evidence is there to support the charge?

The most substantive allegation revolves around an Israeli prize Higgs refused to accept.

Higgs, who retired from the University of Edinburgh, gave his name to the Higgs boson, considered the final building block that had been missing from the “Standard Model” that describes the structure of matter in the universe. Englert and Robert Brout, who died in 2011, also had important roles in the discovery.

In 2004, the three physicists were awarded the prestigious Wolf Prize, an Israeli award granted by the Knesset and the Wolf Foundation. However, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported, Higgs declined to travel to Israel to accept the prize.

According to Physicaplus, the online magazine of the Israel Physical Society, Higgs boycotted the ceremony because it was in Israel.

“Prof. Higgs, received the Wolf Prize in 2004,” confirmed Liat Ben-David, director general of the Wolf Foundation. “At the beginning he was delighted, and said he would come, then due to all kinds of things that Israel did in the political arena, he said that he cannot agree with Israeli policy, and that he declines and would not come.”

The Ynet news site reported that it was the assassination of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin that caused Higgs to decline.

“Whether he joined the boycott after that, I don’t know,” she added, “but he hasn’t been to Israel since.”

“We send our warmest congratulations to Professor Higgs,” Ben-David continued. “This does not take anything away from his grandeur as a scientist. We are certain that humanity will continue to benefit from scientists of his caliber. Hopefully they will come to Israel when they receive their prizes.”

In addition, according to Yedioth, Higgs shares his views on the occupation at every opportunity and actively encourages the academic boycott of Israel.

If a leading professor like Higgs was really so outspoken about boycotting Israel, one would expect to find clear evidence of it on the Internet. But there is no record of any letter Higgs signed on to; nor is there any indication that he has made any anti-Israel statements.

Jewish students at the University of Edinburgh never heard of Higgs expressing his opinion on Israel. “I heard him speak once and didn’t hear any politics,” said Timothy Abraham, past head of the Jewish Society on campus. “Apparently he did boycott a certain ceremony because it was state-funded by Israel and attended by the president.”

Though it is impossible to prove a negative — that Higgs did not make any comments about boycotting Israel — it seems unlikely that he is as outspoken as some claim. Moreover, though he refused to come to Israel in 2004 for political reasons, that does not mean he supports a larger boycott of Israeli academics.

Considering the crucial role Israeli scientists and institutions have played in the Higgs boson discovery, Higgs would have to be rather brazen to support a boycott of Israeli institutions.

“Indeed,” wrote The Times of Israel’s David Shamah, “if Higgs is the father of the boson that bears his name, scientists at the Weizmann Institute are at least uncles. Weizmann scientists have made strong contributions to bringing CERN researchers to the point where they felt comfortable” announcing the discovery of the Higgs boson in July of 2012.

A Weizmann team, headed by Professor Giora Mikenberg, developed unique particle detectors that were manufactured at the institute, as well as in Japan and China. The detectors were adapted to detect muon particles, which are an indication that a Higgs particle is present.

In addition, Weizmann Professor Ehud Duchovni heads the institute team that examines other key questions at CERN, the particle accelerator in Geneva that scientists used in the experiments that led to the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Weizmann scientists were not the only Israeli scientists involved in the search for the Higgs boson. Hebrew University Professor Eliezer Rabinovici is Israel’s representative to the governing CERN council. In addition, Technion Professor Shlomit Tarem, who has been working on the Higgs boson project for well over a decade, oversees detector control for several of the research groups. And Technion Professor Yoram Rozen helped design the 2008 CERN “Big Bang” experiment.

Scientists have been on the trail of the Higgs boson since 1964, when Higgs theorized that elementary particles gained mass by interacting with a special quantum field that permeates space (the Higgs field), and leads to the development of quarks and electrons, the elementary particles of matter.

Englert, along with his colleague Brout, also from the University of Belgium, were the first to publish, in 1964, the material that ultimately led to the Nobel prize. Higgs published a similar paper just several weeks later, in which he was the first to theorize the existence of the new particle type later to be named for him.

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